As unrest swept the city Sunday, aldermen pleaded with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to help them protect their communities from roving bands of criminals clashing with police and looting businesses.
WTTW News obtained a recording of an online conference call held by the mayor’s office to brief all 50 aldermen on the city’s response to the unrest touched off by the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
While one alderman wept, others grew angry with the mayor, demanding to know what her strategy was to stop the violence that began in earnest late Saturday.
The call provides a snapshot into the city’s response as of midday on Sunday to the most widespread and damaging unrest since the uprising after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the police riots after the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
The recording begins with Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) wondering how she could convince businesses like Walmart and CVS to rebuild on the South Side after the destruction.
“It’s like, what are we going to have left in our community?” Harris asks her colleagues before answering herself. “Nothing.”
The Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus criticized Lightfoot’s decision to use 375 members of the Illinois National Guard to block off the Loop and the central business district starting Sunday morning, making business corridors on the South and West sides an “easy target” for looters and criminals because they “did not have the same level of protection.”
Lightfoot dismissed that criticism as “illogical and not true” on Wednesday.
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said she felt helpless to protect older residents, who she said were struggling to buy food and get prescription medicine.
“I’ve worked really hard over the last seven years and now I feel like I am five feet back,” Dowell said.
“I feel like I am at ground zero,” Harris responded. “My major business district is shattered. Why would Walmart or CVS come back to our communities?”
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said her West Side ward was like “the wild, wild west out there.”
Nearly five minutes into the call, Lightfoot speaks for the first time, saying she had been trying to speak for five minutes.
Lightfoot begins by defending her response to the unrest, telling the aldermen that criticism that she protected downtown at the expense of the West and South sides “offends me deeply, personally, in part because it is simply not so.”
“We’ve been working our a– off,” Lightfoot said. “It is all over the city.”
Lightfoot said it took three hours for officers to clear the area near Madison Street and Pulaski Road, and even after officers “gassed [the crowd] with pepper spray twice, they didn’t give a s–t.”
Lightfoot said officers were in “armed combat” with those intent on committing crimes on the West Side only making progress after bringing in “heavy equipment and stronger pepper spray.”
Lightfoot said a crowd of 30-40 people gathered outside a clothing store near 111th Street and Michigan Avenue as a “dude with a sledgehammer” broke into the store to allow it to be looted.
“I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen s–t like this before, not in Chicago,” Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot vowed to launch a “Herculean effort” to convince businesses to rebuild and reopen.
Lightfoot said she had no choice but to shut down the CTA after reports buses were being “commandeered” by “anarchists.”
Dowell asked Lightfoot to use the National Guard to protect grocery stores and pharmacies, but the mayor said “they are not a magic tool, they are the military.”
In other cities, National Guard troops have made things worse, “not better,” Lightfoot said.
Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) said he had called 911 to report looting, and got no answer. Rich Guidice, the director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, acknowledged that the system was overwhelmed.
“There are no easy answers here,” Lightfoot said.
Organized groups of criminals were responsible for the majority of looting in Chicago, prompting nearly 65,000 calls to the city’s emergency operations center, Lightfoot said
Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th Ward) broke down while pleading with Lightfoot for help.
“My ward is a s–t show,” Sadlowski-Garza said, adding that cop cars and banks were burned. “They are shooting at the police.”
Sadlowski-Garza began to cry as she said the unrest began about 11 a.m. Sunday, when a group of 40 people broke into a marijuana dispensary, but had nothing to do with a protest.
“I have never seen the likes of this,” Sadlowski-Garza said. “I’m scared.”
Sadlowski-Garza wept as she told Lightfoot new businesses had been destroyed, while other shops were being protected by owners with shotguns.
“This is a massive, massive problem,” Lightfoot said. “People are just f—–g lawless right now.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th Ward) demanded that Lightfoot develop a plan to stabilize Chicago’s neighborhoods for five days, calling his Southwest Side ward “a virtual war zone” where gang members armed with AK-47’s were threatening to shoot black people.
The call came to a screeching halt when Lightfoot declined to address the substance of Lopez’s remarks, and Lopez demanded that she respond.
Lightfoot told Lopez he was “100% full of s–t.”
“Well, f–k you then,” Lopez responded.
“I understand you want to preen,” Lightfoot told Lopez.
As aldermen objected, Lopez continued to speak.
“Mayor you need to check your f—–g attitude,” Lopez said.
That profane exchange was first reported by the Sun-Times.
Later in the call, Lightfoot told Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) she spent a significant amount of time on Sunday morning dealing with a group of protesters outside her Logan Square home.
“Following your lead, alderman,” Lightfoot said, moving on to the next question without addressing Sigcho-Lopez’s comments.
Sigcho-Lopez led a protest outside Lightfoot’s home on May 14 to stop a planned demolition of a portion of the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village.
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward) told Lightfoot he was worried that the looters would attack homes where many people have guns and concealed carry weapons.
Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) said he was concerned that residents would take matters into their own hands and become vigilantes.
“This is far worse than it was in 1968,” said Burke, who was elected to the City Council in 1969.
Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd Ward) told the mayor that Little Village residents banded together to protect businesses along 26th Street, the largest shopping district outside the Loop.
“I’m talking about all segments of our community, including some on this call would prefer to be incarcerated,” Rodriguez said. “I think there are people of all stripes coming together, and I pray that holds tonight.”
That exchange prompted Lopez to charge that Lightfoot knew that gangs were part of efforts to protect neighborhoods, and that Rodriguez was working with them.
Lightfoot called that charge “ridiculous.”
Rodriguez told WTTW News on Wednesday that some of those who were protecting the neighborhood targeted people “who were perceived to be outsiders” based on their race.
That was “unfortunate and unacceptable,” Rodriguez said, adding that he began working to address those issues immediately.
The unrest and violence had mostly subsided by Tuesday night before reaching residential areas of the city.
Lightfoot ended the call with one last request of aldermen: “Pray for us all.”